Minik: The Lost Inuit in New York City
Written By: TJ
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Before civilization came to existence, native tribes from different parts of the world have been roaming the Earth. One of them are the Inuits or previously known as “Eskimos”, the native people who live in barren parts of Northern Canada and Greenland. These people’s lives and cultures were studied by explorers through expeditions, and one who have done so was the late Robert Peary, an American explorer who took six Inuits, two of them were children, to the raucous environment of New York City, leading most of them to their deaths due to adaptation matters.
The Arrival of Hope
It was one quiet summer day of 1896 when a young Inuit named Minik saw a ship called Hope, sailing closer to their icy land. The Inuit band gathered only to be greeted by the first white man they saw in their entire lives, Robert Peary, an American Explorer studying the North Pole.
Many historical figures have shadowy pasts, and a story rarely spoken of was Robert Peary’s. His 1894 expedition to set a farthest north record has miserably failed, and he was looking for alternative ways to squeeze out some glory in his name. He remembered about a meteorite that exploded and fell on Earth thousands of years ago, its bits and pieces managed to fall on parts of Greenland. Peary then had a new mission in mind, so he set his ship Hope towards the direction of Minik’s home.
Peary was able to convince one Inuit to take him to the area where bits of meteorite fell in exchange for knives. For 11 days, they walk on foot to reach the site, and what he found were three parts of meteorite which the Inuits called, “The Tent”, “The Woman”, and “The Dog”. As they returned back, Peary paid the locals with pans, rifles, pots, and guns to help him heave “The Tent” to his ship, in which the locals indifferently obliged.
Before Peary left for New York, he had one last task to do as he was asked by Franz Boas (who would later be the Father of Anthropology), to take at least one Inuit to American Museum of Natural History to be studied for a year. Instead of just one, Peary took six Inuits with him for the promise of “nice, warm homes in the sunshine land”. He successfully persuaded the six mainly because these Inuits wanted to travel to other places, while others just simply didn’t want to be separated from loved ones. In total, Peary voyaged back to NYC with three adult man including Minik’s father, Qisuk, one woman, plus two children including Minik.
Inuits in New York City
Hope arrived in September of 1897 at the harbor of NYC, which immediately caught the attention of townspeople. The next day, they paid 25 cents to see the “Eskimos” still in their Arctic Furs. Then, the six Inuits were taken to a damp room under the museum, clearly making them realize that they’ve been deceived. What started out as an adventure became a tragedy as they were all mistreated and barely taken care of.
Months later, four of them acquired tuberculosis because of the germs and bacteria that their bodies weren’t immune of. Not later after that, these unlucky souls died, and one of them was Qisuk. The other living Inuit was able to be brought back to Greenland, while Minik was left alone and lost in a strange city.
To appease the grieving boy, Peary inaugurated a mock burial for Qisuk where he wrapped a log in furs to simulate the body of Minik’s father. It wasn’t a proper burial rite for the Inuit tribe, but it was enough for Minik to pay his last respect to his only family.
In reality, however, Qisuk and the three other Inuits’ bodies were embalmed, flesh were removed from the bones, bleached, and then stored at the Museum for everyone to look at. Peary made a fortune out of his expeditions, but he never dared once mentioned an Inuit in his books.
Alone in an unfamiliar land, Minik was adopted by one of the staff at the museum named William Wallace. He was dressed, fed, and even enrolled to a school. For over a decade, Minik lived a normal American life as Minik Wallace.
William tried to get financial assistance from the museum but he was just turned down multiple times. Even Peary did not contribute to Minik’s upkeep.
One afternoon, Minik went home crying. He finally found out that his father’s burial was all a deception and the bones were displayed at the museum after hearing it from his classmates. He went straight to his room and never came out for days.
“He was never the same boy. He became morbid and restless. Often we would see him crying, and sometimes he wouldn’t speak for days”, William said. “We did our best to cheer him up but it was no use. His heart was broken. He had lost his faith in the new people he had come among.”
Museum of Horrors
It was believed that not only the Inuit bodies were put on display, but they were also being studied upon even after their deaths. If only these bones were given name, people would’ve known that only anonymity masked the cultural theft and violation that these bones held within.
Minik spent much of his time trying and failing to get his father’s remains back from the museum. His attempts fell on deaf ears, and he only benefitted so little from the publicity attached to his case.
After losing a lot of his hope that he would someday bury his father with proper burial rites, he at least trust the campaign to get Peary to send him back home. Peary, out of desire to rid himself of nuisance, agreed to arrange a passage back to Greenland with his team.
Peary made it look like to the public that Minik was sent home “laden with gifts”, but evidence showed that Minik arrived at Greenland with no more than the clothes on his back.
Lost in Two Places
The Inuit band welcomed Minik again in their homeland. Fed him, sheltered him, and even taught him their native language and culture that he had forgotten over time as he strayed far away from home. He even became one of the fine hunters of his tribe. Nevertheless, there is a strange, invisible line that separated him from rest of his fellowmen, and there were undeniable tensions boiling whenever he’s around.
Minik soon married a local Inuit woman, but their marriage didn’t last long. He was only in his element when there were guests and explorers visiting their land, playing the role of a guide and a translator. Sad to say, a native Inuit born and raised in Greenland was missing the busy streets and bright lights of New York City.
In 1913 came the answer to his wishes when Crocker Land Expedition came to visit. He resolved to go back to New York and did so in 1916 with the crew of the said expedition.
The Young Boy’s Death
Minik’s final sojurn in the states was the happiest part of his life, although a brief one. Upon arriving, he applied for different jobs across the town before becoming a lumberjack in New Hampshire, where he met a new friend named Afton Hall.
Hall’s parents decided to take in Minik, an offer the latter excitedly accepted. He finally felt the solitude and genuine happiness that he’s been longing for with his new-found family. Perhaps, this was the period of his life that he really had been home.
Just as everything was healing up and looking better, the Spanish flu that ravaged millions of people swept the town of New Hampshire and Minik was one of the unlucky people who got affected. 2 years into his peaceful life and it was taken away as he succumbed to the outbreak in 1918.
Minik’s story didn’t quite end there as it came to light in 1987, thanks to the author of “Give Me My Father’s Body”, Kenn Harper. After learning Minik’s terrible fate, he dug up evidences and with the help of few friends, he was able to convince the American Museum of Natural History to return the bones to their rightful place. In 1993, almost a century later, Minik was given the right to proper burial he was denied of for so long. As the bones of his father and fellowmen lay in peace under the soil of their birthplace, the words “They have come home” in Inuit language was written for their stories to be told generations after generations.
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